In London, what is the Roman Wall?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The Roman Wall in London was once a formidable fortification built by the Romans to protect their city of Londinium, and encircled by a large ditch to further deter invasion. Although the Roman Wall has been largely demolished, traces of it still exist, and it is possible to visit some sections of the wall which were preserved in situ. While fortified cities are relatively rare in the modern age, walling in cities was standard at one point in history, and the London wall represented a very effective fortification for the city, protecting it actively for over 1,000 years.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

Londinium was first established around 43 CE, when the Romans first reached Britain. After destruction by Boudica, a native Celtic woman who led an uprising of the tribes against the Romans, Londiumium was rebuilt, and the groundwork for the wall was laid. Construction of the wall appears to have been concentrated in the second century CE. When it was completed, the wall enclosed 330 acres (1.3 square kilometers) with an extremely thick and high wall, marked by “gates” which allowed for entry into the city.

The gates of the Roman Wall were not like the simple, hinged gates which most people might imagine. Instead, they were complexes built into the wall itself, with heavy doors which could be shut at night. Each gate was used to house administrative facilities, and the gates often housed prisoners as well. London's guards lived and worked at the gates, checking people who entered the city and assessing tolls if necessary. At night, the city was locked up so that no one could enter, and curfews were often enforced on the citizens as well.

At first, the Roman wall had a small number of major gates, to limit the vulnerabilities of the wall. As London expanded, the need for more gates grew, until six major gates were constructed: Aldersgate, Aldgate, Bishopsgate, Cripplegate, Ludgate, and Newgate. The names of some of these gates might seem a bit odd, but they often have prosaic explanations; Cripplegate, for example, is probably related to an Anglo-Saxon term meaning “tunnel,” not to people with disabilities. The sites where these gates once stood are named after them, and it is not uncommon to see streets named after features of the London Wall as well.

The Roman Wall in London stood largely extant until around the 18th century, when the expanding city began to put pressure on the wall. Many sections were demolished to build homes, and in the 20th century, further sections of the Roman Wall were destroyed by bombing. The portions that remain are an impressive testimony to Roman engineering.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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